Art & science: Turner's message from the skies

Research links painter's sunsets to volcanic eruptions

To most of us this is a brilliant sunset, from the brush of the man who painted them best, Joseph Mallord William Turner – a precious work of art, immensely valuable for its own sake.

To Christos Zerefos, however, it is an "intense optical phenomenon", a priceless piece of scientific evidence for working out the world's climatic history. And it is just one of more than 500 paintings by famous artists that a team led by the Greek professor has been analysing to work out the impact of giant volcanic eruptions.

Where the rest of us see beauty in a fine sunset or sunrise, atmospheric scientists see dirt and dust. For these particles help daub the brilliant reds and golds of these skies.

Evenings and mornings take on these hues, rather than the blue of the day, because the slanting sunlight has further to go through the atmosphere before it reaches our eyes. The longer it has to travel through the atmosphere, the more it is scattered by the molecules of the air. The shorter wavelengths – violet, blue and green – are dispersed the most, leaving yellow, orange and red to get through.

Particles – and tiny droplets of sulphuric acid – magnify the process, and volcanoes, which throw vast quantities of both up into the stratosphere, have long been known to produce amazing sunsets. The giant eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 produced particularly brilliant sunsets, as did that of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991.

And both the dust and the droplets also help to cool the Earth by bouncing the sun's rays back into space; in recent years they have helped to offset global warming.

This is where Professor Zerefos, of the National Observatory of Athens, and his team came in. They reckoned that paintings of sunsets before and after volcanic eruptions could help to show how much these had affected the climate of their times.

So they studied 554 pictures depicting sunsets, produced between 1500 and 1900 by 181 artists, including Rubens, Rembrandt, Reynolds and Renoir – taking images from the websites of 109 galleries and museums.

Five artists – Copley, Turner, David, Ascroft and Degas – were particularly useful, as they depicted different sunsets before, during and after major volcanic eruptions. Turner was in a class of his own because he painted so many – in all, 115 of the studied canvasses were his – and his career spanned three such events, in 1813, 1831 and 1835.

Sure enough, the scientists found that the artists had faithfully reproduced what they saw – or, as their paper, just published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics puts it, they "appear to have simulated the colours of nature with a remarkably precise coloration".

The sunsets they painted were reddest in the three years after major eruptions, and confirmed what was already known from other records about their effects.

Professor Zerefos's team is now hoping to study 40 works in the Tate, painted in the last century, to see what they can tell us about air pollution at the time – a trickier task as the effects of man-made dirt on sunsets are less straightforward than those of volcanoes.

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments